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Monthly archives: November 2006


2006-11-29 12:20
by Mark T.R. Donohue

One of the many reasons I'm not much cut out for the day job existence is I can't stand scheduling; since elementary school, I have chafed at attempts to make me stop doing any one thing while I am still interested in it or continuing doing another after I've conclusively decided it isn't worth my time. I am an intensely focused person. Whenever I discover a new band or author or television show worth further study I immerse myself in that subject completely until I feel I have learned all there is to know.

That dovetails nicely with my writerly inclinations, since I am perfectly comfortable with spending every moment of my waking life entirely dedicated to one subject. The best part of being a writer is that there is a built-in stopping point to all of these obsessive little fugues; after the piece on a given topic is completed, I'm improving at picking up stakes and moving on to the next thing. I'm much better at short projects than semester-long surveys, that's for sure, and my emotional well-being (as well as my level of nutrition) has much benefited from the lifestyle change. I can commit as much time as I like between paid projects to my various unprofitable obsessions. Besides, I don't have to explain my process to anyone. It may look like I am playing SimCity 2000 or napping to the untrained eye, but what that's really is essential mental inventory time. Also, figuring out how to play Led Zeppelin songs on the slide guitar.

Since I've become accustomed to keeping my own company and working at the pace most natural to me, travel comes increasingly as an inconvenience. I like being where my things are, and I like being in an environment where if my creative gears are churning at four in the morning, I can damn well be creative. Staying at my parents' home for the Thanksgiving holiday was an unpleasant shock to my routine. I was away from my research materials, as it were. The shock to my usual pattern of self-paced inquiries is one from which I'm still recovering.

So: The notes column! Last refuge of the lazy! As much as I dislike having adjust my acutely inwardly-reflected attentions to the presence of (gasp) other people in my headspace, it is nice to have friends and family draw my attention to subjects that otherwise might escape my attention. During my week-long stay in Illinois, many things struck me as worthy of further study, but I didn't have the time or the resources to form in my mind the normal lengthy, thoughtful, and articulate reflections which are my usual stock in trade. So: The notes column!

HD is neat. My best friend/research department and a lot of my parents' friends whose homes I visited during the trip home provided me with my first opportunity to really sit around and observe how different a football or basketball game looks in high definition. For sports, the format is really a no-brainer, there's a reason all those early adopters are all in your ear with the "You'll never go back" raves. What I like best about HD as it applies to televising sports is that the deep, deep focus of the medium eliminates the subliminal judgements about what's important that directors and cameramen used to make for you. Standard-definition sports broadcasts make you look centrally at the ball, or the quarterback, and that's not always the whole story. With the wider screen, the standard sideline action shot as presented in high definition allows you to see everything that's relevant to the play at hand. In football, you can see the intricacies of line play and more easily determine whether defenses are using man or zone schemes. In basketball, you can watch the constant battles for post position and the multitude of off-ball screens the slicker offensive teams run. I haven't viewed a hockey game in HD yet, but I intend to do so very soon. Focusing on the puck, as standard broadcasts have struggled to do for years, is basically impossible. I can't wait to see whether HD hockey manages to replicate the wider perspective that for years has made the NHL a see-it-in-person-or-skip-it kind of league. Thankfully, I live in one of the last real-deal hockey enclaves south of Canada, so there will be plenty of HD Avs telecasts from which to choose.

"Weeds" is excellent. I was waiting to sink my teeth into this much-praised Showtime original series a little later on, when in better position to afford the rather luxuriantly priced first-season DVD set. (Forty bucks for ten half-hour episodes? And I thought the division of the last "Family Guy" season into three separate DVD releases was a huge gyp. This is all your fault, HBO. Paramount, you're not helping either.) The research department forced my hand by showing me the first few episodes at his apartment last week. Sure enough, I was hooked and had to return to check out the rest of the season at my earliest convenience. Now I am trying to figure out how I can squeeze a Showtime subscription into my budget so I can catch the second season through On-Demand. See, I don't like to write things like "'Weeds' is excellent" and then not back them up with cogent and original reasons why. But I've only seen the whole first season through twice now (yeah, I bit on the DVDs) and I don't have any deeper analysis beyond the fact that I can't get enough. If you've only just started the somewhat drastic cast shifts of the first handful of episodes can be a bit weird, but even if you're conscious of this it will be in a "Gee, they kind of retooled this on the fly and yet it doesn't miss a beat" kind of way. It's a shame they wrote out the young actress who plays Silas's first girlfriend in the pilot but the deaf actress who plays his second girlfriend is excellent too. The sudden arrival of Andy on the show is weird as well; the sitcom develops a nice snappy little pace in the first three episodes and all of a sudden there's a major new regular who gets a ton of screen time in his first couple of appearances until a new balance is established. "Weeds" has a ton of over-the-top performers. Elizabeth Perkins, Justin Kirk, and Kevin Nealon have characters all competing on a weekly basis for the Most Loathsome Person in America award, Pink Flamingos-style. The first time through I didn't even catch how nicely nuanced Romany Malco is, an impressive bit of rangefinding after his more over-the-top breakout role in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. At the center of it is Mary-Louise Parker in a career-definer; she used to be an actress I was more vaguely aware of than could actually recognize, now she's forever Nancy Botwin. It's a tricky bit of work, because Nancy is only marginally less loathsome than the other regular characters, an opportunist, shaky role model, and increasingly lousy parent. Parker makes her cute. I'm glad she's not my mom, though. If you'll excuse me, I am going to go illegally download the second season now.

"Supernatural" is a tribute to the unflagging might of High Concept. One of the reasons I was holding off on "Weeds" was that I was still working on the first-season DVD set for this WB horror show. I got on the bandwagon relatively late, with the last two episodes of the first season in reruns before the second season began. This is the kind of genre show that isn't going to convert anybody, and the first season's heavy reliance on very standard horror archetypes might throw the more jaded. But, it's a good example of how a show with a very simple idea can hit the ground running and ease its way into real brilliance. The first season of "Supernatural" compares quite favorably to the first season of "Buffy" in average episode quality. The second season thus far has begun to explore the more mythic possibilities of the basic format (two brothers in an Impala tool around the Pacific Northwest killing demons) in the same way "Buffy" grew from its one-sentence pitch into Major Television Work. Contrasting "Supernatural" with "Heroes" and "Lost" might be instructive. Those shows had bigger debuts, and much greater immediate payoffs. But "Lost" is already sagging under the weight of its hideously convoluted mythology, and whispers about "Heroes" not being able to maintain its pace abound. "Buffy," if you'll recall, didn't tackle any huge arcs at all in its truncated first year on the air. It concentrated on establishing its characters and its style, and held off on the flashbacks, double-crosses, and gothic romances until Season Two (which, if you're only a casual fan, was the year with the whole good Angel/bad Angel thing). "Supernatural," like "Buffy" always did, isn't putting on any airs about being made up as it goes along. "Lost" and "The X-Files," which always imply but never conclusively prove a grand design, will always have the faint air of a broken covenant between writers and viewers. Is it not better to just start with a simple idea and face the questions as they come? When the original "Star Trek" launched, the writers didn't know there was a Federation or a Starfleet. They made those institutions up when storytelling demands required. (The best modern "Star Trek," like the Section 31 arc on "Deep Space Nine," operates in the same tradition; "Enterprise" by contrast was basically killed by the weight of its inherited mythology.) In Season 1 of "Buffy" there was no Watchers' Council, but there was a Giles, and he got orders from somewhere, so they worked it out when they got around to it. It was weird that the local police appeared complicit in all the vampire killings, but they worked that out too with major payoffs in Seasons Three and Four. "Supernatural" has started out in a similar manner with a very basic set of assumptions about these two brothers who hunt demons, and watching the writing staff start to organically address the questions this lifestyle raises is a lot of fun to watch. How do they find jobs? Well, there's a national underground of demon hunters, who we're just beginning to meet (which conveniently addresses another of the show's potential shortcomings, only two regular characters). How do they pay for gas? Credit card scams! I already foresee an episode where the brothers encounter the in-the-know government official who is shielding them from prosecution in the interests of controlling the demon population. But that story could go any one of a dozen different ways (I know, I'm having huge Act 3 problems with my spec script), as opposed to the big-time-mythology-right-out-of-the-gate shows, which are on rails in a weird way. Either "Lost" comes up with some half-baked answer to an earlier mystery, which will forever disappoint, or pretends it never raised the question. By promising less "Supernatural" is well on its way to delivering more. Even if at this very moment the ratio of just-okay monster-of-the-week episodes to big resonant moments is somewhat higher than you'd hope. Hey, most of the all-star "Buffy" writing staff didn't come together until its third season, and between the grand strokes a lot of the Season Two episodes ("Ted," "Bad Eggs," "Inca Mummy Girl," "Go Fish," "Some Assembly Required," "Reptile Boy") were so poor they'd never get made as "Supernatural" offerings.

All the sports teams in Chicago are bad. Somehow whenever I leave my hometown I forget this. Every visit back, I get reminded. The Blackhawks are bad. The Bulls are bad. The Cubs spent a lot of money, but they're still bad. The White Sox totally haven't won the World Series for a whole year, and haven't spent as much money as the Cubs, so they're bad. The Bears? Well, yes, for the uninitiated, I can see how the best record in their conference, basically having the division and the first-round bye locked up in November, and having the number-one ranked defense in the NFL might appear as solid evidence that they are in fact good. But go to Chicago. The man on the street will tell you. They're bad. What other major city in this great nation has a populace at once so obsessed with its sports teams and so universally pessimistic about them? Philadelphia, you say. Well, Philly fans are different. They like being miserable. They're a bunch of sociopaths. But Chicago fans genuinely want to see their teams do well. Of course, it's impossible to be a devoted Chicago sports fan for very long without noticing the teams there are very consistently crummy. Strange place. I miss it sometimes...but you know how I feel about travelling.

Whose "House?" Run's "House!"
2006-11-15 04:48
by Mark T.R. Donohue

For someone as pop culture-obsessed as I am, I do tend to take rather long breaks from my shows every so often. Real-world concerns and the beginning of the NBA season kept me from watching much scripted drama at all for about three weeks there; when at last the mood struck I had four new "Lost" episodes and a 10-hour "House" marathon to digest. I have a sort of elaborate point to make about "Lost" and its perceived decline, but I'll get to that eventually. First, I want to give "House" its due. I've never fully embraced the show for a bunch of silly little reasons: scheduling conflicts, feature-stingy DVD releases, Peter King's repeated endorsements. I wasn't an early adopter, not checking the show out until it started in reruns on cable. Maybe for this reason alone I always forget about it when I start talking about the best shows on TV right now. It is, it really is. My automatic response for my favorite show right now is always "Veronica Mars," but that may be fading. Great first season, underrated if convoluted second season, but now in the third year it appears like the series is not going to be one of those that can successfully redefine itself, forever operating in the shadows of unfulfilled promise. "House" on the other hand is now as it has always been; as a procedural show that downplays serialized elements it has no real need to rotate characters or radically redraw its boundaries.

Watching the recent marathon, mostly of second-season episodes I had seen once or twice before, I was again surprised by how much I like "House." On an episode-by-episode basis, has this show given me any less pleasure than "Veronica Mars" or "My Name Is Earl" or "Stargate Atlantis" or any of the other current TV shows I make absolutely sure never to miss? I would say it's right up there. It doesn't lend itself to as much postshow analysis due to its very nature, but it's amazingly rewatchable for a procedural show. I like the whole cast (although it is still deeply weird to me that nobody at the show or at Fox noticed that Omar Epps' character has the exact same name as Topher Grace's from "That 70's Show," which in this viewer at least causes some inappropriate reactions from time to time). Considering the glut of hospital dramas in TV history, I appreciate the stylized, sophisticated look of the show's sets. It's not the right choice for everything on TV, but in this case the decision to go with what's visually interesting over strict realism is dead on. The show's interiors match up nicely with its trademark CGI sequences of tiny virtual cameras whooshing through blood vessels David Fincher-style. It's instructive to compare the huge, 2001-like operating rooms and labs of "House" with the claustrophobic, dingy look of "Scrubs" or the detail-oriented, real world-scale sets of "ER."

My favorite thing about "House" though might be its cynical, frequently disturbing take on sexuality. Dr. House's whole character hook is that he distrusts his patients pathologically and firmly believes everything they say to be obfuscations meant to make his job of curing them more difficult. People lie more about sex than anything else, and so there's hardly an episode goes by without some sort of salacious twist. I mean, no matter what your favorite -- the nun who turned out to be an former hooker, the rape-fantasy couple, the clinic visitor who was sleepwalking every night to (and through) rough encounters with her ex -- this is foolproof material. I'm amazed Oliver Sacks hasn't beaten the "House" writers to it, actually. But the show goes deeper than merely relegating the kink to its guest stars and walk-ons.

House himself is, of course, a psychologically fascinating fictional creation. There are way more aspects to this than I have time here to discuss, but I do wish to make one observation relevant to the topic of human sexuality as depicted on the show. One of the many endearing things about Hugh Laurie's characterization is House's neo-Socratic justification for his frequently appalling behavior. Since the doctor alone seems to realize that in the sexual arena human beings are craven, barely sentient beings helpless in the face of their filthy desires, he's in his estimation free to point this out to others or demonstrate it himself whenever the mood takes. He's the proverbial one-eyed chicklet in the kingdom of the blind, if you'll excuse an old expression. As frayed as House's logic in this case may be, it's deeply amusing to watch Laurie flirt with Cameron, bait Cuddy, mercilessly taunt his male colleagues for trying to maintain decorum, and openly lust after teen patients. House's running commentary is a useful dramatic device in the stories of the supporting cast, who have doubts of their own already when it comes to developments like the breakup of Wilson's marriage or Cuddy's decision to have a child as a single parent. A medical show seems like an obvious venue to take a grown-up look at sex issues, but for whatever reason the grand tradition in the genre has been partner-swapping soap storylines more suited to "Friends" or "90210." It kind of boggles the mind that "House" and "Grey's Anatomy" are nominally about the same subject.

There's another layer still. In its best episodes, "House" really makes the viewer feel complicit in all the sex weirdness. The constant stream of foxy female guest patients is just the beginning (not to overlook the comely regular Jennifer Morrison, who as I see from her IMDb profile is a Cubs fan, poor dear). One of the baseline assumptions "House" makes is that in order to be a good doctor, you sometimes have to be a bad person. When considering matters of life or death, things like privacy, modesty, and good manners fall by the wayside. It's always better to show than to tell, and the "House" eps that really resonate are the ones that make the viewer feel a little uncomfortable themselves. As the show has gained confidence and narrative momentum, this is something that's been happening increasingly often. (And they are on the right network to be TV's leading non-pay cable creepy sex show.) There were two scenes in the marathon last week that struck me in particular. In one, House injects Dr. Cuddy with a vitamin shot right to the rear, her hands grabbing a desk for support and her skirt hiked up as high as TV-14 will allow. In another, House engages in what can only be described as remote-control foreplay with Dr. Cameron, undressing her with a piece of advanced robotic surgical equipment as a skeptical patient observes. My point is, this is a creepy show made by a bunch of deviated preverts, and it makes me kind of proud to be American that it's hugely popular right now. As for how I feel personally about the recurring Michelle Trachtenberg-in-a-clean-room fantasy "House" has instilled in my brain, that's somewhat more ambiguous.